A More Expensive Bill for North Korea

This essay is part of a strategic dialogue on North Korea that includes this article by John Feffer. The authors respond to each other here.

North Korea recently announced that it would launch intercontinental ballistic missiles and conduct nuclear tests unless the United Nations Security Council apologized for condemning the country’s launching of a long-range rocket on April 5. The North is taking a quite different approach now compared with the crises of 1994, when it first confronted the Clinton administration with its nuclear program, and in 2006, when it conducted its first nuclear test.

During those crises, North Korea was more concerned about the U.S. government’s reaction. The North Korean Foreign Ministry made its announcements and then waited to see how the United States would respond before taking further action.

This time, however, North Korea doesn’t seem to be waiting for a U.S. response, so Washington should craft a different policy to inhibit North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Division of Opinion

South Korean experts have taken essentially two approaches toward dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The “Sunshine Policy” advocates, including former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, insist that the North is developing its nuclear program in order to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States. They believe that the North will give up its nuclear ambitions if the United States offers a security guarantee, bilateral summit meetings, and economic support. On the other hand, conservatives argue that not only will the North never abandon its nuclear program, but it will also make vigorous efforts to stay a nuclear power at all costs.

Considering Pyonyang’s latest moves, it’s clear that the conservatives are correct. Since being a nuclear power is at the top of the North’s agenda, the North wants any future talks to be a U.S.-DPRK disarmament meeting, a talk between two nuclear powers, if it’s to have any discussion with the United States about its nuclear program. By retesting its long-range missile, which was unsuccessful during its 2006 test, the North wanted to improve its nuclear technology and strengthen its position as a nuclear power.

The White House has also taken notice of Kim Jong-Il’s intentions. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Gary Samore, said on May 1 during an event at The Brookings Institution that he expects North Korea will carry out another nuclear test, and that the North would face further sanctions by major players on the UN Security Council if it did. Samore’s message to Pyongyang was that there would be two major consequences if it decided to follow through on its test. First, the UN Security Council would invoke Resolution 1718, passed in 2006 after the first nuclear test. Second, China and Russia would support additional sanctions.

Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that Kim Jong-Il would be intimidated by this sort of message. First, Resolution 1718 isn’t strong enough to put pressure on the North. Since the resolution is a ban on exporting a list of goods, including luxury items and weapons to the North, Kim Jong-Il would not care much about the consequences.

Second, getting China and Russia to help impose additional sanctions against the North might not be as easy as Washington wishes. China already acknowledged to some extent that North Korea is a nuclear state. Also, the Chinese government knows that it might lose political influence over the North if it places new sanctions on the North; therefore, it’s most likely that China would stay resolute on taking no clear stand on the issue.

Moreover, China and the North share borders of more than 620 miles. Kim Jong-Il knows better than anyone that even if the Chinese government does impose new sanctions against the North, local governments would ignore this and continue trading with the North. In other words, the White House is trying to prevent North Korea from conducting its second nuclear test by slapping Pyongyang with a bill that is neither expensive nor particularly threatening.

Bigger Stick, Bigger Carrot

In terms of sticks, the Obama administration should consider redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to the United States Armed Forces in South Korea, which former president George H. W. Bush ordered to be completely removed in 1991. If the White House is to make the North wary of paying the consequences of a possible second nuclear test, the United States must consider placing the weapons back in South Korea.

Repositioning tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea will be a definite advantage for the United States in several respects. First, the United States would be able to give greater heft to its sanctions that would place North Korea at a greater disadvantage in nuclear negotiations. Secondly, the U.S. can get China to play a more active role in dealing with the North. The United States can use resetting tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea as an effective tool when persuading China to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear program. Instead of the United States simply arguing that China should prevent the North’s nuclear tests, it could tell China that the United States will reposition tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea if China fails to stop the North from its second nuclear tests.

Finally, the United States would be able to restrain South Korea and Japan from their own nuclear desires. Since North Korea’s first nuclear tests in 2006, conservatives in Seoul and Tokyo have been discussing the need for developing their own nuclear weapons. Their voices would be magnified if North Korea keeps pursuing more nuclear tests, which poses a more serious danger to South Korea and Japan than to Washington. . Putting tactical nuclear weapons back in the South would not only strengthen security ties with the South and Japan, but also contain their production of nuclear weapons.

By getting China to suspend financial activities with the North in Dandong, the trade center between China and the North, the Obama administration would send a quiet but strong message to the North that it should give up its nuclear ambitions. If the North still continues with its second nuclear test, the United States might want to consider getting China to suspend its oil exports to the North.

On the carrot side, President Barack Obama should engage directly with Kim Jong-Il. Since North Korea is a dictatorship where Kim wields power over every aspect of the country, a direct interaction with him would be the most effective way to resolve this standoff. To see evidence of this method’s success, the Obama administration should look no further than the administration’s recent effort to engage with the Iranian government. On March 20, 2009, Obama sent a video message to Iranian leaders announcing his desire to resolve the issues between the two countries in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. The Obama administration should carry out a similar strategy with North Korea. If Obama directly addresses the North Korean regime and initiates bilateral talks with it, the North would consider resuming nuclear talks and eventually return to the negotiation table.

Finally, although bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea are a good starting point in an effort to prevent the North’s further nuclear experiments, negotiations might not work out well given the circumstances. Therefore, the United States should send a clearer and tougher message to North Korea by raising the possibility of redeploying nuclear weapons in the South first, strengthening the unity with China and Russia, and then initiating higher-level talks with the North.

With brinksmanship, North Korea has been inveigling the United States into providing economic support for the last 15 years. Isn’t it about time for the United States to use brinksmanship against the North?

Brent Choi and Joowoon Jung are North Korea specialists based in Washington D.C. and contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.